Arts & Culture

‘Menashe’ explores conflict between convention, individuality

“Menashe,” a film by Joshua Weinstein, follows subversive bachelor as he attempts to raise his son

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Despite the influx of students coming back to campus for the start of fall semester, not many went to check out “Menashe,” a movie currently showing at the Avon.

On the surface, it’s not obvious what would attract a typical Brown student to Thayer Street theater’s most recent attraction, which focuses primarily on the difficulties that face a man who, frankly, just doesn’t get it — a movie that features women only in supporting roles and takes place in an isolated Hasidic community. 

The first scene takes viewers to New York City where, Menashe, a middle-aged Hasidic man, stands behind the counter at a supermarket. Here, the movie showcases one of its best features — the ability to capture the atmospheric quality of its setting. The sallow yellow light in the crowded store serves as a backdrop to a harried woman who complains to Menashe while he checks her out. Her baby is crying, she’s rushed and Menashe looks on without empathy. Understandably so, as his wife recently died and he is estranged from his son.

The movie uses Hasidic culture to reveal the complications of a society steeped in tradition that resents the bumbling missteps to which Menashe is consistently prone. Menashe, like a baby, cannot effectively cook, clean or even fulfill his duties at work in the absence of his late wife. Through various comical mishaps, the movie reinforces the idea that Menashe does not  comply with any traditional qualification of responsible behavior.

In spite of this, he is stubbornly determined to raise his son independently from his wife’s brother. He essentially kidnaps his child from his brother-in-law’s more traditional home and takes him to live in his apartment where he feeds his son soda and cake for breakfast.

By the end of the film, after Menashe has repeatedly failed to adhere to even basic responsibilities and refused any form of help, the rabbi forgives him and suggests that he will be able to raise his son on his own. The pivotal next scene shows him emerging from a bath, and implicitly beginning to turn his life around. Here, the director suggests that somehow Menashe’s subversive behavior trumps the confines of tradition; that his determination somehow earns him guardianship of his son. And in some ways this might be true: Undoubtedly, the harsh separation from his son initially imposed by the rabbi warrants some empathy for Menashe.

By diving into a society that enforces challenging and seemingly inexplicable guidelines for how things should be done, Menashe’s experiences evoke relatable emotions. Many are inclined to question and reassess these systems, and Menashe does exactly this — except that in his efforts, he also drags along his child. And while the viewer empathizes with Menashe’s principled approach to follow his heart over tradition, the implication in the film of Menashe’s ability to change and ultimately care for his son, despite repeated failure, feels like an over-simplification.

“Menashe” is, at its best, a movie about a stubborn old bachelor trying to raise a son. At it’s worst, it is a melodrama that follows an entitled man who just can’t get what he wants. It has its quirky moments: Menashe chatting about women in a supermarket basement, failing to raise a chicken in a New York City apartment or, simply, standing in a dark gas station eating his sandwich with an unamused cashier. And it has its cringey moments — his bluntness on a date or his pleas to his boss to loan him money. But, more than anything, the director has effectively raised important questions that viewers can carry out of the Avon:  When is it okay to comply with tradition? Can Menashe’s stubbornness and willpower surpass convention, even when it puts his son in an unsafe situation? Menashe’s neighbor says to him: “Even a bear can learn to dance,” and it’s up to the viewer to decide whether they’re convinced.